11 April 2015

Land of the Morning Calm part 2

It's springtime now and a young man's thoughts turn to fresh air and new blossoms. I'm currently revising a novel set mostly in Japan, and set mostly in springtime, but I am recalling a springtime trip I took to Korea while I was living in Japan and teaching English there. Close enough? 

You can read Part 1 here.

As you may recall from Part 1, I had the best laid plans for an enjoyable spring break trip to South Korea but awoke my first morning there with a full-blown cold!
As it turned out, it was good that I didn’t have a heavy sightseeing schedule lined up that day. It gave me time to get my cold under control. After 12, I went out to get something to eat. Eun-Sook, my college friend's sister who was acting as my guide, and I had arranged to meet the following day in front of the Koreana Hotel, the city’s largest, to catch the bus to Kyong-ju. So I decided to walk over there and see where it was—about 3 km's walk. On the way I thought I could find a place to eat, maybe a Kentucky Fried Chicken if I was lucky, since I'd seen a couple on the way to Ulsan.

Seeing Ulsan in daylight, albeit a cloudy gray daylight, Korea really looked dismal—old and dirty, broken down, out of fashion. [This was 1992.] Very different from the Japan I had just left. But it was interesting, nevertheless. Ulsan is a major industrial hub, home to Hyundai Industries; perhaps it was not meant to be glitzy and exciting.

I found the Koreana hotel and ate in their restaurant. I had what was called on the menu “filet mignon”—an overcooked steak that was not a real Filet Mignon and served with a smear of mustard—for 17,000 Won (¥2500/$30). I decided I had to keep up my strength while I fought my cold, so I took it.

Feeling better after the meal, I decided to make my way back and try to find the block where we first got off the bus from Pusan. That was the district where all the young people were mingling on the sidewalk. From the bus I had seen a large music store there. It took me about three hours of walking—the city is very spread out—to find it, not that I was in a big hurry.

The sun had come out and although the wind had picked up, it was becoming a pleasant day. The fresh air made me feel better. I got some bread from a bakery, presumably to be my supper and breakfast, later got some mikan (like tangerines), 5 for 1000 Won (¥700).

Then I found the block, probably the classiest street in town, where the buildings actually looked new and in modern style, where the well-dressed people came to mingle, where the music shop was.  Inside, I saw the prices were ridiculously low compared to music in Japan. Korean pop/rock singers were 3500 Won (¥700), Korean-licensed cassettes were at 3800-5000 Won, and the imported Western labels were at 10,000 to 18,000 Won (up to about ¥3200). With a bag of music cassettes in my hand, I returned to the inn and took more medicine and went to bed after listening to a sample of each tape on my Walkman.

Saturday. I slept in a little, not expecting to remeet Eun-Sook until 3 pm. I returned to the “fashionable” street, not to buy more tapes but to eat lunch in the pizza shop I saw there. I found that my throat was too painful to swallow. The coughing from my chest that I was doing made my throat worse. But I had used all of my Coricidin.

That morning I was just interested in getting something to coat my throat. Cough drops, at least. So I took out my Korean phrase book and found the word for “cough lozenges” and wrote the Hangûl characters on a piece of paper and the Roman transcription next to it. I also turned to the “doctor” section and wrote down “sore throat.”

I took my camera to photograph some places I’d seen the previous day—not that they were so nice looking, just recording what I saw. I took pictures of some traditional dresses in window displays. I passed a few pharmacies until I found one that looked better than the others.

Inside, a man in white lab coat was at the counter and I pulled out my piece of paper and spoke the magic Korean words, pointing to my throat. He smiled, understanding or just amused, then looked at my paper, reading the Hangûl I wrote. He spoke some English and sold me a bottle of cough syrup (no lozenges available). The package came with tiny little plastic cups—like thimbles—one for each dose, and he explained in broken English the instructions.  It was pretty good stuff—for my throat and my cough—but it didn’t cure my cold, not that I expected it to. Feeling better just from now owning some medicine, I continued down the long main street of Ulsan to the pizza shop.

I saw an Asiana Airlines office on the corner and went inside to pick up a timetable. I asked about flights from Pusan to Fukuoka, gave the girl the date, and found they had seats available. How much, I asked and was told it was 52,000 Won. I did a quick calculation and knew that it was less than the cost of the ferry and less than the KAL flight I bought in Japan. Let me have it, I was practically singing across the counter at her. A 40-minute flight was better than a 15-hour boat ride. Especially being sick.

The pizza was good. The family that ran the shop (snack restaurant in back, bakery store in front) were very happy to have me as a customer. When I selected a loaf of fresh-out-of-the-oven bread to take with me for the bus trip to Kyong-ju, they called it even when I handed them a 10,000 Won bill—the pizza was 7500 Won and the bread (fancy kind) was 5000 Won.

I returned to the inn and took my new medicine, then finished packing. I took a taxi to the Koreana hotel, the designated meeting place, settled into a comfortable chair in the lobby with a copy of the English-language Korean Herald newspaper and a handful of English pamphlets and maps, waiting for Eun-Sook to arrive at 3 pm.

When Eun-Sook arrived, we took another taxi over to the bus terminal at the opposite end of town and caught the “local” bus for Kyong-ju--the next city to the west from Ulsan. But we had to settle for the absolutely last seats on the bus, the back window behind us. I was really afraid of getting car sick along with my cold, but fortunately it was a relatively short trip, about 45 minutes. I guess the pizza was working for me. And the blessed codeine!

In Kyong-ju we walked to the first “Yugwan” (family-owned inn) we saw and checked in, me in the northwest corner and Eun-Sook in the southeast corner. We seemed to be the only guests among the dozen or so rooms. We checked in and were given towels and water. This time the water was in a large tea kettle, as though it was freshly boiled.

The guy checking us in (owner?) was kind of a jerk: when we gave him the money for two nights stay, expecting change, he said (to Eun-Sook in Korean) that since we were checking in early (4:30 pm) he’d keep the change as the early fee. Who else did he have to check in to his place, anyway? And what time was “regular” check-in? We could wait until then, but...we were too tired to hassle with it. It turned out to be a custom of the country—keeping the change.

Once checked in, we went walking around town looking for a good place to eat, looking for a bookstore, looking for souvenir shops. We saw many tourist hotels—Kyong-ju was a “tourist” city, after all—and lots of signs in Roman letters saying “Tourist Hotel” and “Korean Restaurant.”

I was beginning to be particular about my meals now, not very impressed with the cleanliness of everything, especially where food was served, so I suggested the “Korean” restaurant at a fancier-looking tourist hotel. But we found that it was closed, so the hotel doorman directed us upstairs to the “grill”—which looked like a “nightclub”: low chairs intended for sitting back and drinking rather than scooting up to the table for eating. I had a steak—some kind, anyway; it was just called “steak”—which was pretty good.

I was awakened early, however. I thought we had agreed on meeting at 8:30 for breakfast (rolls and mikan bought the night before), but I guess Eun-Sook misunderstood when I said I would get up at 7:30—so at 7:25 there was a knock on the door. I looked at my watch, then answered it. Waking from a dead sleep like that, with a full cold, it was not a good moment, but I persuaded her to come back in 30 minutes and gave her some mikan to start eating. After I pulled myself together, I didn’t feel too bad. The sun was shining and it seemed like a good day for sightseeing.

Our first stop was the huge tomb mounds of the ancient Silla kings. It’s called Ch’ônmach’ong, or “Flying Horse” tomb because of a horse’s mud guard found in the burial chamber showing a flying horse. It is also the largest mound in this park. The mounds could be seen rising above the buildings of the town, and they were so perfectly round and their slopes so smooth that they had a rather striking appearance.

My first impression upon entering the “park” was that it did not feel like a cemetery, much less one for kings. It was peaceful and pretty in its own way. One mound was opened to the public—literally. It had been excavated and hollowed out, and you could walk inside. A glass wall separated the viewing area from the burial chamber. The bones were still there, along with the gold crown and the shield, sword, and many gold rings on the bony fingers. A little eerie, but how often do you get to walk inside someone’s grave?

Outside, the cherry trees were blossoming, along with other flowers I did not know the names of, which added to the beauty of the place. From the parking lot beside the souvenir shops—and I looked in all of them but bought nothing but postcards—we caught a taxi to go down to the Pulguk-sa “resort area.”

The main attraction was one of the most famous temples of Korea, Pulguk-sa. (The sa means “temple.”)  Well, it was a Sunday and the tour buses were busy; many people dressed in their “Sunday Best” or the traditional dresses came just to take pictures with the temple as a backdrop. It was a little early in the year (higher altitude up on the mountainside, of course) for the trees to be in bloom, so my pictures were not as good as the postcards. The areas inside the compound were better looking than the front facade.

I had Eun-Sook take lots of pictures of me. I learned through the course of my trip that all temples in Korea have the same colors, especially that aqua blue-green. I found them colorful and because we don’t have such architecture in America, we Westerners have to take pictures of it. It was a rather extensive temple complex and the passageways wound around and around through the hills. I lost count how many “inner temples” there were where people were on their hands and knees praying.

It was about lunch time by then, and the weather was sunny and warming. We decided to take the bus up the 13 km mountain road to see Sokkuram, a cave at the top of the mountain with a carved stone Buddha in it. The other option was to take the 3 km straight hike up the mountainside from near Pulguk-sa, a journey that I did not feel up to with my cold. But we had an hour to wait for the bus, so we decided to get lunch in the “village” of souvenir shops and cafes across the road from the Pulguk-sa parking lot.

We had barely stepped onto the curb when old ladies were running up to us trying to drag us into each of their own cafes, fighting for our business. Eun-Sook decided on one and we went in. The usual kind of dinner was served: all of the little bowls of things edible and inedible, though always interesting looking. It was fast and cheap, anyway. The restaurateur seemed offended when we asked for separate bowls for the soup, since I had a cold—otherwise, Korean style is everyone helps themselves from any of the dishes.

Then we got on the bus bound for Sokkuram, the name of the mountain which rises behind Pulguk-sa. The road winds and winds and from high up in the bus, we can really get a good view of the way the bus would go down to the valley below if it were to swing a little too wide on one of those hairpin turns! Thankfully, we arrived at the top, but not at the grotto. That was still a 2 km walk along a wide path which wound around the mountainside.

It was scenic as we walked. Below the trail was a river valley. Once we arrived at the sacred grotto,” we had to fight the crowds of people. It is an active, holy place, where a glass wall separated the statue from the worshipers, leaving a space of about eight feet between the glass wall and the back cave wall, and with people in front bowing down on all fours, it was rather crowded.  There were signs saying no photographs, but it was too dark anyway, and with people jostling me there was no way I could take a long exposure picture.

Next, we took the bus down the mountain and then caught a taxi in the parking lot and rode about 15 minutes back toward Kyong-ju but got out at Anapchi Palace grounds. This place was formerly the grounds of a huge palace of the Silla kings, but not their real palace; no, this place was just used for summer parties. The forest and the lake were stocked with wildlife and the three pavilions you still see standing were originally only minor porticoes from which to view the lake. All of the grassy areas were where the palace stood. In one of the pavilions there was a scale model of the original palace.

Across the street was the Kyong-ju National Museum, and we went around through it. Unfortunately, only about 25% of the displays had English signs  with them, so I spent about 15 minutes sitting on a centrally located bench and observing the artifacts from that short distance, then took a quick walk passed them up close. Walking out to the exit, we saw the bus stop and waited about two minutes for the bus to arrive, then rode it through the town of Kyong-ju until it arrived at the bus terminal, the one two blocks from our “Yugwan” inn. We took a rest, then went looking for a better place for dinner than we had previously.

We found a restaurant specializing in Bulgogi, one of the dishes I can eat, which is a kind of spicy beef stew. It was a small family-run shop near the bus terminal, but it was clean, and on the TV in the dining area they were showing Doogie Howser, M.D., an episode I had seen before. But what was funny was the voices they gave the characters. You and I know they are just teenagers and Doogie and Vinnie have higher-pitched kid voices, but in Korean you would think they were 40-year-old men, yet their girlfriends in the program were given such itsy-bitsy cutesy voices you would think they were five years old. Oh, well...a bit of home far away from home. The bulgogi was delicious and I felt I had finally come to appreciate Korean cuisine.

I bought some mikan oranges, some chocolate, and a large bottle of soda for my long bus trip the next day, then we retired. I would be continuing on across the Korean peninsula to meet a pen-pal while Eun-Sook would return to Ulsan. The next morning, Eun-Sook saw me off at the bus terminal, to make sure I got on the right one. I had finished my Ulsan cough syrup the night before, so when I saw the sign of ‘Pharmacy’ in English letters in the bus terminal, I went to the counter and bought another bottle of the syrup. Good stuff.

The bus came on time and left on time, only about one third full, so I could stretch out. But when it pulled out of the terminal, it turned left instead of right and I panicked that it was somehow the wrong bus, but then it turned right at the next big boulevard and headed south to the expressway. At the tollgate, however, the bus driver was told to pull over, and I wondered if it was some kind of random search for drugs or whatever. No, after ten minutes, a Korean fellow climbed on board and retrieved a bag he had left on the bus. The bus driver was angry at the delay and it was obvious as we pulled onto the expressway that he wanted to make up for the lost time. 

We continued on down the expressway like a bus outta Hell!

[to be continued]

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

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